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Armed groups and intra-state conflicts: the dawn of a new era?

  • Arnaud Blin

Have the various profound changes that have affected the world, and particularly its geostrategic dimensions, since the end of the Cold War radically altered the nature of conflicts? Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and ten years after the destruction of the twin towers in New York, there is an apparent degree of continuity in the resilience of former centres of unresolved conflicts and of armed groups involved in them. Nonetheless, whereas most armed conflicts can today be classified as ‘intra-state’, the general context has changed to the extent that reference is now made to the phenomenon of ‘new wars’. Increasingly inacceptable economic and political imbalances along with globalization, environmental damage and its consequences or the emergence of large-scale conflicts triggered by organized crime are some of the perils already affecting the nature of today's conflicts or potentially defining those of the future. As the period dominated by jihadist groups with a universalist vocation possibly draws to an end, the current trend seems to be towards a new generation of guerrilla fighters who stand to benefit, in particular, from the erosion of the nation-state and from geopolitical convulsions arising from the post-colonial legacy as the starting point for intensely zealous and violent long-term ventures. The impact of globalization could cause a flare-up of some existing conflicts that are currently limited in scope while the international community struggles to redefine other rules and to adapt them to the new dialectic of war and peace.

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1 Sun Bin, The Art of War (fourth century BC), English translation of the original quote in French in Economica, Paris, 1996, Chapter X, p. 41.

2 Bierce, Ambrose, The Devil's Dictionary, Dover, New York, 1993, p. 32. The American satirical journalist Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914) was extremely popular in his day. He was deeply affected by his personal experience of the American War of Secession. He disappeared without a trace during the Mexican Revolution.

3 Reference may be made to the study of this subject by Raymond Aron, who tells us: ‘Thinking of contemporary wars as Clausewitz did does not consist of mechanically applying concepts applicable to Prussian officers but of faithfully following a method. As war is a chameleon in both senses of the word – war changes from one situation to the next and is complex in every situation – the primary task of a statesman is to determine the true nature of that particular war that it is his responsibility to understand or conduct’. See Aron, Raymond, Penser la guerre: Clausewitz, Tome II, l’âge planétaire, Gallimard, Paris, 1976, p. 185 (Clausewitz: Philosopher of War, London: Routledge, 1983) (ICRC translation.) With regard to wars in the twenty-first century, it should also be recalled that Clausewitz was initially a theoretician of ‘small-scale war’ or guerrilla warfare – drawing his inspiration from the example of Spain – before he became a philosopher of war.

4 See the seminal work by Van Creveld, Martin, The Transformation of War, New York, Free Press, 1991; and the surprising analysis by Caillois, Roger, Bellone ou la pente de la guerre, Fata Morgana, Fontfroide-le-Haut, 1994. Although written by a multifaceted and hence non-specialist author, this is one of the most incisive works every produced on the evolution of war.

5 There is no better illustration of the phenomenon than the war in Afghanistan, where a superpower with the most sophisticated weapons clashes in the same setting with foot soldiers fighting (almost) as in the Middle Ages. Obviously, the asymmetry is disrupted when foot soldiers prove capable of destroying a state-of-the-art helicopter with a simple rocket-launcher. However, political rather than strategic factors (at least at the operational level) often cancel out purely military and technological superiority with the limitations imposed on regular armies, especially when the fighting takes place far from home. See in particular, and especially with regard to humanitarian consequences, Geiss, Robin, ‘Asymmetric conflict structures’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 88, No. 864, December 2006, pp. 757777; Pfanner, Toni, ‘Asymmetrical warfare from the perspective of humanitarian law and humanitarian action’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 87, No. 857, March 2005, pp. 149174.

6 Kaldor, Mary, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2006, pp. 12. See also Münkler, Herfried, The New Wars, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2005. Other authors refer to ‘postmodern’ warfare although, in conceptual terms, the ideas presented are very similar to those relating to new wars. See, for example, Hanson, Victor Davis, ‘Postmodern war’, in City Journal, winter 2005. On the transformation of war in the twenty-first century but without engaging in semantic debates, Laurent Murawiec provides an analysis of conflicts based on the ideas developed in the context of the revolution in military affairs: La Guerre au XXIe siècle, Odile Jacob, Paris, 2000. For an incisive analysis of the causes and consequences of the strategic shift, see the essay by Chaliand, Gérard, Le nouvel art de la guerre, Hachette, Paris, 2009.

7 See, nonetheless, Sadowski's warnings about the relation between globalization and war in the post-cold-war period: Sadowski, Yahia, The Myth of Global Chaos, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, 1998.

8 Morin, Edgar, La Voie, Fayard, Paris, 2011, p. 21.

9 von Grimmelshausen, Hans Jakob Cristoffel, Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch, first published 1669. It has been translated several times in France and in the United Kingdom under the title of Les aventures de Simplicius Simplicissimus/The adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus.

10 Nonetheless, a new edition of his synthetic work has been published in France, where it is also available as a paperback: Jomini, Antoine-Henri, Précis de l'art de la guerre, Perrin, Paris, 2008. In the nineteenth century, Jomini enjoyed tremendous prestige, far greater than that of Clausewitz.

11 Lenin's interest in the Prussian philosopher is evident in his copiously annotated copy of On War. In a letter to Karl Marx (1858), Engels seems to prefer Jomini: ‘Jomini is definitely the better historian and, apart from a few excellent things, I do not like the innate genius of Clausewitz’, while Lenin is wholehearted in his preference: ‘Clausewitz is one of the most profound military writers, one of the greatest, one of the most remarkable philosophers and historians of war, a writer whose basic ideas have today become the indisputable property of every thinker’.

12 See, for example, the incisive analysis by Aron, Raymond, Sur Clausewitz, Complexe, Brussels, 1987, pp. 152183.

13 In accordance with the 2010 classification of the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK), ‘Conflict Barometer 2010’, Heidelberg, 2011.

14 Recent studies tend to show that globalization apparently increases the mortality rate in inter-ethnic conflicts in contrast to other types of conflict. See Olzak, Susan, ‘Does globalization breed ethnic discontent?’, in Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 55, No. 1, February 2011, pp. 332.

15 Moreover, the paradox of contemporary international politics has to do with the incapacity of the world's leading countries to manage the crises that may arise in various places. Michael Howard sums up this dilemma: ‘Peoples who are not prepared to put their forces in harm's way fight at some disadvantage against those who are. Tomahawk cruise missiles may command the air, but it is Kalashnikov sub-machine guns that still rule the ground. It is an imbalance that makes the enforcement of world affairs a rather problematic affair’ (Howard, Michael, The Invention of Peace: Reflections on War and the International Order, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2000, p. 102). It should be pointed out that this passage has been taken from a work that was written before the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

16 More than territorial reconfiguration, it is the role of the state that changes. The state is becoming increasingly unable to meet the present challenges but still plays a key role, both because it is the sole body able to legitimize the use of force and frequently has a monopoly on the use of force and because as yet no other entity has really stepped into the breach. François Géré sums up the current problems regarding the state: ‘Traditionally the guarantor of a defined territory, the state is today caught between the rock of globalization and the hard place of regionalization. This phenomenon calls into question certain national entities more than others. As the organizer of domestic security and responsible for external defence, a state constitutes the interface between a given community at a particular moment in history and the other states, representing other communities made up of aggregate interests. However, the founding principle of international relations is being challenged – admittedly somewhat rapidly – in the name of globalization, micro-regionalization and the emergence of non-state actors with good or bad intentions’ (Géré, François, La Société sans la guerre, Descléee de Brouwer, Paris, 1998, p. 267).

17 The privatization of war is of itself a major source of concern. See Rasor, Dina and Baumann, Robert, Betraying our Troops: The Destructive Results of Privatizing War, Palgrave, New York, 2007.

18 See Mann, Michael, Power in the 21st Century, University of California Press, Los Angeles, CA, 2011.

19 In the Congo, for example, 350,000 of the 2,500,000 victims between 1998 and 2001 apparently died in armed combat. These figures must obviously be treated with caution. See Wenger, Andreas and Mason, Simon J. A., ‘The civilianization of armed conflict: trends and implications’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 90, No. 872, December 2008, p. 836.

20 Bachelet, Jean-René, Bringing the Violence of War under Control in a Globalized World, Forum for a New World Governance (FNGM), Paris, 2009, pp. 1112.

21 See, for example, Arreguin-Toft, Ivan, How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

22 See Berkowitz, Bruce, The New Face of War: How War will be Fought in the 21st Century, The Free Press, New York, 2003, p. 103.

23 See McCants, William, ‘Al Qaeda's challenge’, in International Herald Tribune, 23 August 2011.

24 In Article 2(7): ‘Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII’.

25 The principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (‘RTP’ or ‘R2P’) adopted by the United Nations in 2005 is directed towards protecting populations from mass atrocities. In accordance with the concept, ‘where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect’ (see Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, ‘The Responsibility to Protect’, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 2001, pp. XI, XII, available at: (last visited 1 November 2011). The R2P was referred to by the Security Council on 22 February 2011 in the context of the Libyan crisis with this official press statement: ‘The members of the Security Council called on the Government of Libya to meet its responsibility to protect its population. They called upon the Libyan authorities to act with restraint, to respect human rights and international humanitarian law, and to allow immediate access for international human rights monitors and humanitarian agencies’. See ‘Security Council Press Statement on Libya’, UN Doc. SC/10180, AFR/2120, 22 February 2011, available at: (last visited 8 November 2011).

26 The question of peace and democracy is at the heart of discussions on the essence of political science, as it is one of the rare political phenomena considered to be a ‘law’. See, in particular, Fendius Elman, Miriam (ed.), Paths to Peace: Is Democracy the Answer?, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1997; and especially Doyle, Michael, Ways of War and Peace, Norton, New York, 1997.

27 However, the problem of democratization and violence is complex. Reference may be made in that respect to the conclusions drawn from the Colombian experience on the notion that all groups should have access to power for democracy to be complete. See Chacón, Mario, Robinson, James A., and Torvik, Ragnar, ‘When is democracy an equilibrium? Theory and evidence from Columbia's La Violencia’, in Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 55, No. 3, June 2011, pp. 366396.

28 Notably by President Calderon, who disclosed these figures publicly in April 2010.

29 Let us recall that, traditionally, war is a legal concept while conflict is primarily a sociological concept and therefore less precise. The former implies a certain level of violence while the second presents a broader range, which does not necessarily imply armed violence. More specifically, the subjective barometer that is applied nowadays is nonetheless a useful means of classifying a conflict as war: a threshold of 1,000 or more deaths. In 2010 the HIIK referred to the Mexican conflict for the first time as a war. Armed conflict is also a legal term; see, for example, Vité, Sylvain, ‘Typology of armed conflicts in international humanitarian law: legal concepts and actual situations’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 91, No. 873, March 2009, pp. 6994.

30 Nonetheless, it is also apparent that, however well intended, external interference does not necessarily produce positive results. See Cunningham, David E., ‘Blocking resolution: how external states can prolong civil wars’, in Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 47, No. 2, March 2010, pp. 115127.

31 It is surprising to reread the work on peace written by the economist Thorstein Veblen around one hundred years ago (1917); the problem of war and peace, and particularly the matter of ‘national interest’ has apparently not changed. The following passage speaks for itself: ‘Hitherto the movement toward peace has not gone beyond this conception of it, as a collusive safeguarding of national discrepancies by force of arms. Such a peace is necessarily precarious, partly because armed force is useful for breaking the peace, partly because the national discrepancies, by which these current peace-makers set such store, are a constant source of embroilment. But what they actually seemed concerned about is their preservation. A peace by collusive neglect of those remnants of feudalistic make-believe that still serve to divide the pacific nations has hitherto not seriously come under advisement.’ Veblen, Thorstein, The Nature of Peace, Transaction Publishers, London, 1998, p. 302.

32 In 2011 Lotta Themnér and Peter Wallensteen drew up a list of armed conflicts since World War II. According to their data, in 2010 there was a noticeable decrease in the number of active conflicts, taking it to the lowest level since 2003. Themnér, Lotta and Wallensteen, Peter, ‘Armed conflict 1946–2010’, in Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 48, No. 4, July 2011, pp. 525536.

33 On the long-term evolution of violence, see the recent study by Steven Pinker, in which he refers to ‘New Peace’ in the post-cold-war world, The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes, Allen Lane, London, 2011.

34 Huntington, Samuel, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Touchstone, New York, 1997.

35 See, in particular, Kepel, Gilles, The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World, Cambridge, Polity, 1994. Kepel refers, in particular, to ‘religions of confusion’.

36 Water, which is a potential source of conflict, may also present an opportunity to resolve a conflict. See, for example, Tignino, Mara, ‘Water, international peace, and security’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 92, No. 879, September 2010, pp. 647674.

37 HIIK, ‘Conflict Barometer’, above note 13.

38 The study of international relations follows the tradition of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinking with, on the one hand, a Kantian vision driven by an ideal and, on the other, a realist vision inspired by the British thinking of Hobbes, Hume, and Locke. The result is a fundamental dichotomy between two traditions that are nonetheless the fruit of a rational comparison of relations between state entities. It was not until recently that the emotional and irrational aspects of international politics, the dangers of which had first been perceived by Jean-Jacques Rousseau with his intuitive genius, had been studied. On this subject, see the brilliant essay by Moïsi, Dominique, The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World, Anchor, New York, 2010.

39 In civil war, a distinction is made between the concept of ‘indirect’ warfare, i.e. in which the violence is perpetrated solely by an armed group, and ‘direct’ warfare, in which the civilians are in collusion with an armed group. See Balcells, Laia, ‘Continuation or politics by two means: direct and indirect violence in civil war’, in Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 55, No. 3, June 2011, pp. 397422.

40 This is the most sustained decline for forty years. Freedom in the World 2011, Freedom House, Washington, DC, 2011.

41 The likelihood of civil war breaking out seems greater if a conflict has already taken place within the previous two years. See Bleaney, Michael and Dimico, Arcangelo, ‘How different are the correlates of onset and continuation of civil wars?’, in Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 48, No. 2, March 2011, pp. 145155.

42 See Holtom, Paul, Béraud-Sudreau, Lucie, Bromley, Mark, Wezeman, Pieter D., and Wezeman, Siemon T., Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2010, Stockholm, SIPRI Fact Sheet, March 2011, available at: (lasted visited 11 November 2011).

43 René Lemarchand rightly emphasizes regional interdependence and its impact on violence in the Great Lakes region. See Lemarchand, René, The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2009.

44 Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society, Scribner, New York, 1932, p. 95.

45 To put the global threat of piracy in Somalia in perspective, see the interesting article by Peter Pham, J., ‘Putting Somali piracy in context’, in Journal of Contemporary African Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3, July 2010, pp. 325341.

46 The IMB's data are updated regularly and can be viewed at: (last visited 11 November 2011).

47 Carrère d'Encausse, Hélène, L'Empire éclaté, Flammarion, Paris, 1978.

48 The profound difference between the two political cultures needs to be emphasized, particularly the centralized, secular, and uncontested nature of that in China as opposed to India. See the comparative analysis of the evolution of those societies by Fukuyama, Francis, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011.

49 See, for example, Magioncalda, William, ‘A modern insurgency: India's evolving Naxalite problem’, in South Asia Monitor, No. 140, Washington, DC, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 8 April 2010.

50 Callwell, Charles E., Small Wars: Their Principle and Practice, Book Jungle, 2009. A particular discovery or rediscovery of the 2000s has been the book by David Galula in which he draws on his own experience in the French army: Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, Praeger, Westport, CT, 1964.

51 In-depth studies show that violence against civilians in the post-cold-war period is explosive, with a succession of high and low cycles. See Eck, Kristine and Hultman, Lisa, ‘One-sided violence against civilians in war’, in Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 44, No. 2, March 2007, pp. 233246.

52 International Crisis Group, ‘Indonesia: Jihadi surprise in Acef’, in Asia Report, No. 189, April 2010.

53 The reports on the impact of drones, particularly in Pakistan, are circumspect. See ‘L'utilisation de drones au Pakistan n'a pas d'effets sur la guerre’, in Le Monde, 26 February 2010, and The Year of the Drone, 2011, compiled by The New America Foundation and available at: (last visited 11 November 2011).

54 For example, the blowing apart of the US Chinook helicopter in full flight on 6 August 2011, killing thirty-eight victims, most of whom were Navy Seals, was the most murderous incident since the start of the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan.

55 See Schmitt, Eric and Shanker, Thom, ‘U.S. weighted use of cyberattacks to weaken Libya’, in New York Times, 18 October 2011, p. A1.

* Arnaud Blin is the author of a dozen works on conflict history. These include Histoire du terrorisme: De l'Antiquité à Al Qaida, with Gérard Chaliand, Bayard, Paris, 2004/2006 (The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2007) and La Paix de Westphalie, Éditions Complexe, Brussels, 2006.

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